One of my goals during the week that Meg was in Paris was to attend another Intro to Zen session at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, which I did. I posted a facebook event that I would be attending and invited my friends to accompany me.
For better or worse, I’m basically an open book. I don’t play much in my life close to my vest. Another way of putting it is that I don’t have much to hide about myself personally. I suppose some people who are in my position may have been reluctant to post that they were going to a Zen Buddhist zendo and learning about meditation, and I would have understood. That isn’t the way I operate. I’m just a man trying to find his way in this universe. I’ve discovered that there are many friends, acquaintances, etc, who are in the exact same position that I am in, and I’ve received a lot of positive responses to the things I’ve posted. I’m not harming anyone, or speaking ill of anything else anyone might be doing towards the same goal, therefore I feel very comfortable having my thoughts out in the public.
My road to Zen began a long time ago. I was not raised as a Christian. When my parents were together, my dad didn’t really do the church thing. As an active alcoholic, I suppose he was more of a hedonist, and felt like he had better things to do with his time. When my parents got divorced, my mom worked two or three jobs at a time, 7 days a week, so we weren’t attending church. I did go with my brother to my grandmother’s church 4 or 5 times a year though. This was a tiny Methodist church, in rural Alabama, maybe 30-40 people there on any given day. Simple service, a simple sermon, some songs, and then some food. I understood it, and appreciated it. I appreciate it all the more now that I am older as a binding force in that small community, with genuine positive energy.
I did grow up in LA (Lower Alabama) though. Christianity is prevalent and predominant. If you aren’t a member of a church, well then you aren’t a member of certain social organizations. As a kid, I felt the effects…I grew up poor, on food stamps. I shopped at goodwill, went shopping at the poor grocery store. I was smart, wore glasses, had braces, was a nerd. I had a lot of strikes against me, socially. As I grew up in Dothan, I was treated marginally at best by the popular crowd, all of whom were church-goers. Christians. Very few of which exhibited what you would hope from a member of that religion. None of my peers in school were “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or behaving towards the least of their brothers as they would towards Jesus Christ. Their parents weren’t any better. As coaches on the various sports teams I was forced to play on by my mother (who I have nothing but respect for, after all she was working 3 jobs and I needed some structure), they turned a blind eye to the bullying I endured, I can only assume they were hoping it’d toughen me up. I’ll admit, I became angry, bitter, and resentful, and in my opinion, justifiably so.
Side note, I’ve since matured and so has my understanding of Christianity. I’m blessed to be friends with, and work with, many members of that faith who perfectly exemplify its virtues.
I spent my middle school years building up a really good resentment towards Dothan, my classmates, and their social structures and beliefs. By the time I got to high school, it was at a rolling boil. At this time, fate intervened, and I was given a chance to make a decision that would affect the rest of my life. My mother informed me of the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science. Go ahead and laugh. Make a joke about oxymorons or whatever, trust me I’ve heard them before and totally understand. In a nutshell, it’s a public boarding school in Mobile Alabama that, at the time, was for junior and senior high school students. You applied much like you would for a college. You had to take standardized tests to get in, and get recommendations from teachers, counselors, and community leaders. They accepted one or two students per city. This was my opportunity to leave this mess and get a fresh start, and I took it.
I applied with my friend Aaron. He didn’t get accepted, but I did. This school was something I’d never even imagined. They’d taken the most creative, most academic students from all over the state, and dropped them into basically a college setting. The classes were taught by college professors, to the exact same standards. We were living on our own in dorms, some of us hours away from our families.
That was my first interaction with a diverse group. There were gays, lesbians, trans, androgynous, you name it. Black, white, asians of all types. Half the teachers were foreign. There were bible thumping Christians, Hindus, my RA was two steps from becoming a Catholic Monk and had studied with Jesuits all over the place. Every socioeconomic stratus was represented. The school had a total population of less than 200. I think my graduating class was around 80 people, if that.
I suppose that two year experience is what got me to understand that there was more to life than the weird bubble I’d been living in back in Dothan. That there were different ways to live. During one of my classes, I picked up a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is really more of a philosophy book, but it does mention the practice of Zen. I took that a step further and started reading more about it. It just made sense to me.
Tomorrow I’m going to be attending my first official Zen meditation session. I’m nervous as hell. I don’t know all the protocols and procedures, but I’ve been the intro session twice and they assure me that it’s very low key, and everyone has been super friendly. I feel at home so far.
My understanding is that the practice of Zen meditation can be understood as a way to understand yourself, so as to no longer be limited by yourself. This is not an intellectual exercise. Quite the opposite. The thoughts and feelings that crash through my mind and heart on a daily basis are difficult to deal with and at times terrifying. The effects of the life I’ve lived, the resentments and negative trenches I’ve dug in my psyche as a result of my experiences, have always felt out of my control.
When I meditate, when I clear my thoughts, when I disconnect myself from the maelstrom that is my thoughts, then I feel that I can truly begin to live the life that I was meant to live. One not burdened by hostility, resentment, or anger, but lifted by hope, positivity, gratitude, and true happiness.
I find it very difficult to express just why Zen Buddhism has resonated with me so strongly. Most Zen teachers, if you ask them specific questions about how it works and why, they are just going to reverse the questions back to you, so I don’t want to misrepresent Zen in any way here, but the general gist of it is this: We are each awakened, enlightened beings. We meditate to reconnect ourselves with our true natures, which is already enlightened.
This resonates with me. I believe in self determination, having seen the effects in my own life. I have no doubts that I am made of powerful stuff. At the same time, I feel no connection, no sense of control, or balance in my life. I feel that by pursuing the path of Zen, I will be able to reconnect with my enlightened nature, destroy the unhealthy structures that I’ve built for myself, and realize my full potential as a human being in this existence we share.
To understand that it is a shared existence is a step forward for me. I am friends with many great people. We are all walking our own paths towards understanding as we revolve around the sun. My feeling is that you should do whatever you feel is right in order to make yourself truly happy, and help others along the way.
Wil Wheaton put it succinctly. “Don’t be a Dick.”
So did Bill and Ted. “Be Excellent to Each Other.”
Looking forward to tomorrow, and the days after.